Culture Shock

In “From Gutenberg to the internet” and “Nineteenth Century America: Publishing in a Developing Country,” we were sent back in time to a period where reading was an absolute privilege. The rich were the only people who could get access to manuscripts before the printing press was invented because writing manuscripts took so long and there were not many scribes.  This was similar to Colonial America’s culture crisis. Publishing companies were popping up throughout the colonies but they were only publishing British literature. Americans were unable to form their own intellectual crisis. Both of these example show parallels with today’s society. Switching from the paper book to the internet has been a huge culture shock. Further, many countries are still lacking their own intellectual culture because they rely on well-known authors from more established countries.

Before the printing press was invented, the only people who had regular access to books were the intellectual community. “During this period, book production was centered around universities” (Norman 21). Professors and students from universities were allowed to read a book as long as it was chained to the desk. Even after the printing press was invented, reading was still considered a luxury. There were not many printing presses to begin with, so it was still rare and expensive to own a book. Because of this, people lacked intellectual culture until the printing press became more commonplace. Books eventually became cheaper and plentiful, finding themselves in almost every home. This can be compared to the current literary climate. With so many books available on the Internet, thousands of people are completely ditching the old, paper format. Literature is even more accessible now because of the Internet.

This lack of intellectual culture was repeated a few hundreds years later when the colonies formed across the Atlantic Ocean. “The bulk of colonial reading material was imported from England… The British audience, and not the colonial, was the legitimate market for intellectuals” (McVey 69).America was facing a culture crisis, not being able to establish their own intellectual culture. British authors were reprinted in America because Americans trusted the per-established British authors that they were familiar with. They were content publishing British material until the British created copyright laws. Any American publishing British literature without permission would be accused of pirating. Even after the pirating laws, American publishers became competitive about publishing British literature first and the fastest. It took about a century to get America to a point where it had its own intellectual culture instead of just an imitation of British culture.

 It is strange to think that we have come so far from the pre-printing press era. Though the transition from manuscript to print was much less technologically complex than our transition to the internet, the two transitions are very similar in terms of social and cultural change (21). The printing press was a major force in building an intellectual culture for all people in the Fifteenth Century. And, while Colonial America is not the quickest model of building intellectual culture, it is still a model that other countries can use to develop their own literary culture. Many developing countries are trying to better their intellectual cultures by highlighting their own authors. 

By Sarah Pasquarelli


2 thoughts on “Culture Shock

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  1. Sarah,

    Great blog post! I love the connections you made between Gutenberg and the recurring idea of intellectual culture. It’s interesting that this problem continues today, and in such a multitude of markets and industries: music, film, technology… the idea of ownership and the practice of piracy are everywhere! Back then, the printing press made it easy to distribute whatever people wanted, without giving credit where it was due. I’m sure it was the author’s that showed their discontent with the unlawful use of their work- the publishers probably loved it! The competition you talked about between publishers is still present today, too. Big houses don’t just compete against each other, but against small publishers and magazines and online journals, too.


  2. The image of those chained books emphasizes how controlled the spread of knowledge was before the printing press. You’re moving towards good connections between past and present technological (and cultural) revolutions, but you could push these even further. What role might the internet play for developing countries that are trying to forge cultural identities in the 21st century? Does it make the creation of an independent cultural identity easier or more difficult than the US’s cultural development pre-internet? (Also, slight confusion on the phrase: “to form their own intellectual crisis”… do you mean “culture” instead of crisis?)


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